Fixing Our Public Schools, Finally

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - May 17, 2006
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Lawmakers have done a good, good thing. As long as I have been a reporter I have not seen the likes of this session, where legislators acted so decisively from beginning to end.

The beneficiaries? Hawaii’s long-suffering public schools.

Many critics bemoan the large chunk of money that goes to public schools each year. Why, they wail, should we keep throwing money at the problem? Fix it, they cry, make them prove they deserve the cash before we give them any more!

As if that makes any sense at all.

The money appropriated this session isn’t for throwing parties or buying big-screen TVs - it’s for repairing leaky roofs and cracked floors.

In the ‘90s, the Legislature threw paltry sums of money at the repair and maintenance backlog - $30 million and $40 million a year. That caused the backlog to balloon, and schools have never been able to recover. That has been our shameful record of neglect - and how do we fix that without “throwing money at it”?

Anyone who has walked on our campuses and seen the peeling paint and broken windows, or talked with kids and teachers dripping with sweat in sweltering classrooms, understands. If you want to talk about accountability, how about our accountability to the health, safety and learning environments of our children? Do we save money by allowing library books to mold for lack of leak-free roofs? Are we being thrifty by having our science students attempt experiments with decades-old, rusting lab equipment? Is it really cost-effective to make children learn in hot rooms you wouldn’t dream of working in yourself - just because they haven’t proven they can improve their test scores?

But I have also seen the few lucky schools that have had those top-to-bottom makeovers. They were the ones that made it to the top of the priority list, although always after decades of waiting. Most of those schools were falling apart - literally - before they made it to the top. When they were finally fixed, children and teachers almost could-n’t believe their good fortune. What - our classrooms are bright and clean? What - we have electricity for computers? What - everything works and we can learn in a real classroom, not a dump? Do we deserve this?

Yes, you do. And the shame is how long it took for you to get it.

Lawmakers this year had the money and the opportunity to do make it happen for many more children - and they did it.

The backlog has been as high as $640 million and has hovered in the $500 million-plus range for years now. Last year schools had to scramble to make do with $75 million. Lawmakers this year appropriated $210 million. That’ll renovate a lot of classrooms.

The backlog won’t go away, but for once the amount is enough to make a true dent in the problem. About 96 schools will be getting those makeovers - and that is astounding!

So whatever you may think of politicians and despite past years full of silliness and bickering, give them their props for what they did this time. This year they had a clear focus from the beginning and they carried it right through to the end. Of course, it helped to have a big budget surplus to work with - but give them credit for using it wisely. 2006 may end up being the beginning of a physical turnaround for Hawaii’s public schools.

Now, about those test scores ...

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